Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

August 8, 2013

Medical marijuana plan sparks debate; Town may consider one-year moratorium on dispensaries

Town may consider one-year moratorium on dispensaries

By Bill Kirk

---- — A Newburyport-based nonprofit group’s interest in potentially bringing a medical marijuana dispensary to Andover is prompting town officials to consider seeking a temporary moratorium on any such venture.

At Monday night’s Board of Selectmen meeting, Town Manager Reginald “Buzz” Stapczynski offered a draft of a Town Meeting warrant article calling for a temporary moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries in Andover.

The article could be placed on the warrant for a special town meeting should one be called this fall to vote on spending nearly $350,000 in additional education aid from the state.

Stapczynski said a one-year moratorium would enable town officials to hold public hearings, conduct a study and determine the best location in town for a dispensary. North Andover, Haverhill and Lawrence currently have temporary bans on marijuana dispensaries for the same reason, as do several other communities across the state, Stapczynski said. If approved, the moratorium would be in place through June 30, 2014, as allowed under state law.

That would leave time for the community to have a discussion “not about whether or not, because the state voted for it. The issue is not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for it. The issue is where is it most appropriately placed for the community,” the town manager said.

Last fall, a medical marijuana ballot question passed overwhelmingly in the state. In Andover, 61 percent of the voters approved the proposal. State regulators recently issued guidelines for the businesses. The dispensaries may only sell marijuana to people who have a doctor’s prescription for medical marijuana based on a diagnosed medical problem.

Over the last three months, Chris Edwards of Alternative Therapies Group of Newburyport and consultant and former state Rep. David Torrisi have held one-on-one meetings with local officials to discuss their plans for a medical marijuana dispensary in Andover.

Edwards said they have spoken to the police chief as well as the health and building inspectors along with all five selectmen and the town manager. He said the response from people in town has been mixed.

“Some are opposed for political reasons, others are in favor,” he said. “People realize there is a lot of healing this industry can bring to people. It’s unfortunate that political pressures or motivations can bring out opposition.”

Several selectmen say they are opposed to having a dispensary in town, including Chairman Alex Vispoli, who said that although a majority of town residents voted in favor of the medical marijuana law, he didn’t.

“The people voted for it, but I didn’t vote for it,” he said. “Nor would I favor having one in Andover.”

Vispoli said Edwards and his backers have targeted a downtown location as one possibility for their dispensary.

“That is alarming on many fronts,” he said. “You have children, it’s near schools. These folks have targeted Andover. It’s important to get it on the agenda.”

Selectman Paul Salafia agreed.

“In concept, I don’t want it in Andover,” he said.

Edwards, who is also working with a consultant affiliated with a marijuana dispensary in Maine, wouldn’t identify the specific locations his group has in mind, except to say he hopes to locate a dispensary in a medical building of some kind.

“We have letters of intent on a few properties,” he said. “We already have come to terms with several property owners, but we won’t be occupying those properties, since part of it’s conditional on the town zoning.”

Overall, he said, Andover is a good place for a medical marijuana dispensary because of its location and safety record.

“It’s attractive for a couple of reasons,” he said. “Because of the population numbers and surrounding communities, it’s an effective place to be and you can reach a lot of patients. Also, accessibility — it’s at a crossroads of (Interstates) 495 and 93, making it easy to get to. It’s also a safe community, which is a credit to local law enforcement, so patients would feel safe picking up their medicine.”

The town can’t put an outright ban on medical marijuana businesses. Instead, the state attorney general has allowed communities to come up with zoning amendments that permit the businesses to open in certain places. The zoning would be akin to adult-business zones that allow strip clubs or adult bookstores in certain places, but not in others.

Edwards said some communities have even gone so far as to put marijuana-related businesses in the same place as adult zones, which he said was “highly inappropriate. That shows they don’t understand what we’re about. We think it would go better to be in a traditional medical environment. That’s where it makes sense.”